MANILA, Philippines - Philippine men's football team manager Dan Palami expressed belief the Azkals will be the "darkhorse" of next month's AFF Suzuki Cup in Bangkok, no longer the same "underdogs" that went under the radar but pulled off surprises in the previous edition.
"Our opponents no longer consider us underdogs but the darkhorse in the tournament. Everybody's expecting a hard fight from us and we have to live up to expectations as well, not only from fans here but also from the competition," said Palami.
Two years ago, the unheralded Azkals shocked their rivals by forcing three-time ASEAN champ Singapore to a 1-1 draw, beating 2008 titlist Vietnam (2-0) in what was considered "Upset of the Year" then battling Myanmar to a 0-0 standoff to emerge second in Group B and qualify for a breakthrough semifinals.
The Azkals lost to Indonesia in the semis on aggregate, 2-0, to bow out of the championship scene. But they took that semis stint as springboard to making strides in international play, making the second round of the Asian Qualifiers for the 2014 Fifa World Cup last year, copping bronze medal in the AFC Challenge Cup last March, and winning a first tourney in 99 years, the Philippine Football Peace Cup last September.
"We caught them by surprise in 2010, but I doubt they will get surprised by us again," said Palami, whose wards currently enjoy their best ever Fifa world ranking at 147th, a high third in the Asean.
"We have to prove we deserve the ranking as well as the reputation we're getting from the football community."
The Azkals are in the final phase of their preparations for the Suzuki Cup, which blasts off Nov. 24. Phl XI is bunched with co-host Thailand, Vietnam and qualification round winner Myanmar in Group A.
The team had its mini camp over the weekend, highlighted by a tuneup game with United Football League club Stallion FC at Rizal Memorial Football Stadium.
Fil-Germans Denis Wolf and Patrick Reichelt both scored a hat-trick while Marvin Angeles also found the back of the net as the Azkals beat Stallion, 7-4. Spanish Rufo Sanchez also knocked in three goals while Jovanie Simpron added one for Stallion.
The mini camp featured local-based mainstays, minus the players of the Loyola Meralco Sparks led by Phil and James Younghusband who were slated to vie for bronze in the Singapore Cup in Singapore.
The Azkals will play the Singapore Lions on Nov. 15 in Cebu as final game before leaving for the Suzuki Cup in separate batches on the 19th and 20th. This will serve as Round 2 for the two sides, which mixed it up last month in Singapore with the Azkals victorious, 2-0.
The Lions look to go all out not just to avenge that loss but also to impress their coaching staff for spots in the Final 22 who will eventually see action in Group B of the ASEAN tilt.